We are living in an era where women’s workplace concerns can no longer be ignored. While many companies have diversity and inclusion initiatives in place to help address some of the issues their workers may face, women still confront a number of hurdles that affect their career trajectory. HR departments able to create strategies to help address these issues will undoubtedly make an impact on the future of work for all women.
Where Are All the Leaders?
First, businesses must immediately address the lack of women in top leadership positions, especially women who have proven their abilities throughout their career. Unfortunately, the C-suite in the majority of companies still lacks female leaders. In the U.S., women hold only 10% of top leadership positions, and only 5.1% of CEO positions are women. This is unnatural, as women are, indeed, capable of successfully leading companies.
Addressing this issue will create a major positive shift for the business world and for future generations. Just imagine how a young girl’s mind is opened to a whole new world of possibilities simply by seeing what other women have achieved!
Societal Constraints Can Hold Women Back
Both men and women deal with societal constraints, but women tend to face those that prevent them from succeeding in their careers. Women may feel that owning their successes is equivalent to bragging and fear this may cause unnecessary tension with others on their team. Unfortunately, by not owning their wins, others may never know what they’ve accomplished.
Imposter syndrome can also be problematic for women. Imposter syndrome is the phenomenon in which people do not believe their accomplishments are due to talent or skills. Many women may feel that they aren’t qualified or knowledgeable enough to hold their current positions. A study by Hewlett-Packard found that women only applied to positions if they fulfilled 100% of the qualifications. Men felt they only needed 60% to feel confident enough to apply. This self-doubt and lack of confidence may prevent women from applying to positions they may be perfect for. It can also damper their ability to shine in their current positions or hold them back from advancing to managerial or leadership roles.
In addition to these internalized issues, women also face larger societal issues that force them to choose between excelling in their career and focusing on their family/home life. Career interruptions such as a birth, adoption, or the need to take care of an aging parent affect women more often than men. In a survey conducted by Pew Research, 4 out of 10 women had taken significant time off to attend to these roles. While these issues can also affect men, women tend to be impacted by them more often. According to a recent UN Women report on gender equality, women still carry three times the amount of unpaid housework and child care than their male counterparts. This household labor can divert their energy and focus away from work, preventing them from taking on larger tasks or more responsibilities at their jobs.
Women and girls may not feel they can achieve their dreams because of the glass ceiling. This can cause them to aim low. When my daughter was young, I noticed that most of the girls in her class, when asked what they wanted to be, tended to choose support positions, such as dental assistant instead of dentist. While support positions are important and valuable, these roles are more often filled by women. The Department of Labor shows that the most common occupations for women are secretaries/administrative assistants, nurses, and teachers. This is a historical trend that has not been challenged enough. Whether this has to do with a lack of female leadership role models or unconscious bias that hinders girls and women from sensing that they should aim high, it must be addressed. Women should not feel they cannot hold professional positions, and society should not assume support positions are naturally women’s work.
Shifting the Culture
What can HR do to help shift the workplace culture?
- Acknowledge that women still struggle with a lack of role models in leadership positions. If your workplace does not have women in roles at all levels, then there is a problem. There are qualified women out there who are capable of leading their divisions and their companies.
- Mentor others. Mentorship is crucial for women, especially in historically male-dominated industries. Women benefit from building supportive networks that allow them to offer either formal or informal mentoring. HR can help cultivate a work culture that supports women helping one another succeed in the workplace. Building a culture of mentorship, whether formal or informal, should be a priority.
- HR departments must encourage leaders and managers to empower women to take the ball and run with it. Some women enjoy a challenge that proves their capabilities to you, but some will not. Those who aim high will excel. Give them the chance to do so!
- Acknowledge that “having it all” is very difficult for both women and men to achieve but even more so for women. This is a much larger societal issue, but women should be allowed to feel that focusing on their career is not detrimental to their families. According to Pew Research, 95% of married men with children under 5 are currently in the workforce, while only 62% of married women with children under 5 are. I predict this pain point to be a major factor that changes the way businesses address policies related to child care, parental leave, flexibility, and work/life harmony.
- Treat women and men equally in the hiring process and in the workplace. This should go without saying, but we need to acknowledge that this is still an issue.
Human Resources has the ability to create the culture of your workplace. By focusing on and addressing these issues, both your business and society in general will benefit from the positive changes they bring. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “the future depends on what you do today.” If we want to build a better future, one that is more gender balanced, we need to start now.
Sue Bhatia is the founder of Rose International.